10 Key Figures in the British Industrial Revolution | History Hit

10 Key Figures in the British Industrial Revolution

Lily Johnson

14 Jul 2022
James Watt (left); Josiah Wedgewood (middle); Richard Arkwright (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Industrial Revolution was a time of incredible change in Britain. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the country’s rural communities were transformed into urbanised centres of production, with sprawling rail networks ushering a new age of connectedness never known before.

But who were the people driving this revolution? From famous inventors to unsung heroes, here are 10 important figures in the British Industrial Revolution.

1. James Watt (1736-1819)

One of the first major catalysts of the Industrial Revolution was James Watt’s ingenious steam engine, which would power the many mines, mills and canals of Britain.

Potrait of Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt (cropped)

Image Credit: Carl Frederik von Breda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Thomas Newcomen had invented the first steam engine, Watt improved upon Newcomen’s design to create the Watt steam engine in 1763. His design greatly broadened the capabilities of the steam engine, so that it could be used not only for pumping water, but also in a host of other industries.

Watt also invented the first copying machine and coined the term ‘horsepower’. The unit of power ‘watt’ was named in his honour.

2. James Hargreaves (1720-1778)

Born near Blackburn in the northwest of England, James Hargreaves is credited with inventing the spinning jenny. Growing up in poverty, Hargreaves never received a formal education and worked as a hard loom weaver for most of his life. In 1764, he developed a new loom design using 8 spindles, allowing the weaver to spin 8 threads at once.

Rapidly improving the productivity of the loom, the spinning jenny helped to start the factory system of cotton manufacturing, particularly when Hargreaves’ design was improved by Richard Arkwright’s water-powered water frame and later by Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule.

3. Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)

Alongside his water-powered water frame, Richard Arkwright is best known for pioneering the modern industrial factory system in Britain.

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright (cropped)

Image Credit: Mather Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Located in the village of Cromford in Derbyshire, Arkwright built the first water-powered mill in the world in 1771 with an initial 200 workers, running day and night in two 12-hour shifts. As many of the mill’s workers were migrant labourers, Arkwright built housing for them nearby, becoming one of the first manufacturers to do so.

The “dark, satanic mills” of William Blake’s poetry would alter the landscape of Britain and soon the world, inspiring both awe and horror.

4. Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795)

Known as the ‘Father of English Potters’, Josiah Wedgwood transformed the English pottery trade into an impressive international business. Created in a custom-built estate in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, Wedgewood’s pottery became highly prized by royals and aristocrats across the globe.

Wedgewood is also often credited as the inventor of modern marketing, using a host of savvy sales techniques to capitalise on the growing consumer market. Buy one get one free, money back guarantees and free delivery were all used in his sales.

5. Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

At the turn of the 19th century, electricity was considered a mysterious force by most. Before Michael Faraday, no one had found a way to harness its incredible power for practical use.

Portrait of Faraday in his late thirties, ca. 1826 (cropped)

Image Credit: Henry William Pickersgill, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1822 he invented the first electric motor, and in 1831 discovered electromagnetic induction, building the first electric generator known as the Faraday disk. The ability of man to harness electricity would usher in a new mechanical age, and by the 1880s his electric motors were powering everything from industry to domestic lighting.

6. George Stephenson (1781-1848)

Renowned as the ‘Father of Railways’, George Stephenson was a pioneer of rail transport in Britain. In 1821, he instigated the use of steam locomotives on the Stockton and Darlington railway, on which he acted as chief engineer. When it opened in 1825 was the first public railway in the world.

Alongside his equally brilliant son Robert, he went on to design the most advanced locomotive of its day: ‘Stephenson’s Rocket’. The Rocket’s success gave rise to the construction of railway lines across the country, and its design became the template for steam locomotives for the next 150 years.

7. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859)

Perhaps one of the most well-known faces of the Industrial Revolution, Isambard Kingdom Brunel sought to connect the world through his masterpieces in iron.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, photograph by Robert Howlett (cropped)

Image Credit: Robert Howlett (British, 1831–1858) Restored by Bammesk, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At just 20 years old, he helped his father to design and construct the 1,300-foot Thames Tunnel, and at 24 he designed the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon in Bristol. When completed, it had the longest span of any bridge in the world at 700ft.

In 1833, Brunel became chief engineer of an ambitious project to link London to Bristol via a 124-mile railway route: the Great Western Railway. Seeking to extend this route all the way to New York, in 1838 he launched SS Great Western, the first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic, and in 1843 he launched the largest ship of her day: SS Great Britain.

8 and 9. William Fothergill Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875)

Working alongside with these incredible innovations in travel, advancements in communication were also underway. In 1837, inventor William Fothergill Cooke and scientist Charles Wheatstone installed their new invention, the first electrical telegraph, along a rail line between Euston and Camden Town in London.

The next year they achieved commercial success when they installed the telegraph system along 13 miles of the Great Western Railway, and soon many other rail lines in Britain followed suit.

In this episode, Dan gets to explore one of his favourite places in all the world - the SS Great Britain - including some areas that are normally off-limits.
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10. Sarah Chapman (1862-1945)

The great innovators of the Industrial Revolution are often hailed as its most important players, yet the workers who fuelled the factories themselves hold a vital place in history.

Born into a working-class family in London’s East End, Sarah Chapman was employed at the Bryant & May matchstick factory from the age of 19. At just 26, she played a leading role in the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, in which approximately 1,400 girls and women walked out of the factory to protest poor conditions and worker mistreatment.

Eventually, the Matchgirls’ demands were met, and they went on to establish the largest female union in the country, with Chapman elected to their committee of 12. A pioneering move towards gender equality and fairness at work, the Matchgirls’ Strike was part of a long line of working class protests for improved workers’ rights, including that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists.

Lily Johnson